Dogs, Evolution Subjects of Winning Thesis

Victoria E. Wobber ’05-’06 is this year’s winner of the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study announced last week.

Wobber, a biological anthropology concentrator, was selected “for her provocative thesis on the evolution of dog cognition and its bearing upon human evolution,” according to the press release.

The Fay Prize is awarded to members of Harvard’s graduating class “who have produced the most outstanding work or piece of original research in any field,” according to the press release. The piece can be a thesis, a project on creative arts, or research for class. In order to be considered for the award, students must have been nominated for the annual Hoopes Prize, which recognizes exceptional academic work or research.

Wobber’s thesis adviser, Richard W. Wrangham, who is Moore professor of biological anthropology, introduced Wobber to research that found that dogs respond better to human signals than chimpanzees do.

For instance, if chimpanzees see a human pointing to one of two bowls and are asked to select which bowl is more likely to have food, chimpanzees pick the wrong bowl as often as the correct one, Wrangham said. However, dogs who were involved in the same experiment were more accurate, he added.

Wobber became interested in what factor was responsible for differences in each species’ cognitive ability and why some species are better at reading human signals, Wrangham said. Wobber wanted to know if this was the result of domestication.

Wobber, who conducted thesis research at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, examined various dog breeds. Among these was the New Guinea Singing Dog, a breed that had limited human contact but was domesticated very early, Wrangham said.

Wobber found that dogs’ understanding of human signals has evolved over time through domestication. Wobber argued that inter-human communication may have evolved in a similar way, according to the press release.

Wrangham expressed enthusiasm about his work with Wobber.

She “has a very strong sense of what makes a good experiment,” he said. “When she got ahold of an idea from contact with a professor or grad student she would then go on and do her studies very much on her own initiative.”

Wobber, who is studying chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was not available for comment at press time, according to her father, Edward P. “Ted” Wobber.

—Staff writer Doris A. Hernandez can be reached at